Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, former All Blacks and Lions coach LAURIE MAINS discusses the delight of coaching in South Africa, meeting Nelson Mandela and the Currie Cup final at Newlands on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: Since retiring from professional coaching, what has struck you most about the advancing trends within the modern professional era?
Laurie Mains: The skill levels and the vision of the players in the modern game is absolutely outstanding. The oval game today is more of a spectacle and very much faster now, because of the way the breakdown is being refereed. No longer being able to slow ball down as easily is a positive. However, as a purist I would personally like to witness more forward play, particularly mauling, which remains an effective weapon. I would also like to see rucking allowed in the game - though only on the ball. The game has become slightly over-sanitised and rugby must not lose its character.
Sport24 asked: You coached both the Lions and the Cats during your stint in SA. Your highlights?
Laurie Mains: Some of the most pleasant coaching times I had were in South Africa. During my three years, I found that South African players were not afraid of hard work and put their heart and soul into the game. I see Johan Ackermann, a player whom I coached, doing the same thing with the current Lions team. As a player, Johan was a delight to coach as he possessed the ability to execute whatever you asked him to do. When I returned to coach in New Zealand, I was disappointed that most of the players were more interested in their contracts than anything else. During my coaching tenure in South Africa, that never came to the surface. In 1999, I coached the Lions in the Vodacom Cup and Currie Cup and we went on to win both. They were a great bunch of men and achieved stellar results, because they were totally dedicated playing to the patterns I had put in place.
Sport24 asked: Was the All Black class of 1995 the best team you ever coached professionally?
Laurie Mains: That was an incredibly special team and great fun to coach. We put 45 points past England in the 1995 Rugby World Cup semi-final and scored 37 points against France on the end-of-year tour. We also beat Australia twice that year. There were some great players in that team but, for me, their greatness wasn’t just about their ability to play rugby but as human beings. The likes of Sean Fitzpatrick, Zinzan Brooke and Frank Bunce were men who played rugby for the right reasons.
Sport24 asked: Was Jonah Lomu the most gifted player you ever had the privilege of coaching? What do you make of the comparisons between Lomu and try-scoring machine Julian Savea?
Laurie Mains: Jeff Wilson, Andrew Mehrtens and Bunce were a few of the more gifted players that I coached, but they didn’t have the physical prowess that Lomu possessed. Because he was so big, strong and fast, and boasted an excellent side-step, he was almost impossible to tackle one-on-one. To make him special, which he was, as a team we had to devise all sorts of moves that ended up with Jonah getting the ball in space. He was a player of tremendous power, but I don’t think that anybody pretended he was great on defence. The All Blacks have a better winger now in Julian Savea. Savea is the more complete footballer. While he possesses pace and power, he is much stronger on defence than Lomu ever was and goes looking for work. However, one of the great rugby tragedies is that when Jonah should have been hitting his peak, he was struck down with a kidney disease. Who knows how good he may have been?
Sport24 asked: You met the late Nelson Mandela. What did you learn from him as a leader?
Laurie Mains: I had the privilege of meeting both Mandela and the Queen and would put them on a par. He was an unbelievable human being and a leader for all of the world to follow. His decision-making and general demeanour was one of extreme balance and humanity. He was a remarkable man, and I had the honour of speaking with him for five minutes at a fundraiser. That interaction was the highlight of my life. As far as the 1995 Rugby World Cup final was concerned, I saw the South African team grow another arm and leg when Mandela turned up wearing the No 6 jersey. I always knew that South African crowds were extremely enthusiastic, but that raised them up a level.
Sport24 asked: The All Blacks face USA in November. Do you believe in growing the game’s base or is it a purely commercially-driven exercise?
Laurie Mains: I think it’s a bit of both, but I’m very much in favour of the Test match in the US. While it didn’t happen when I was coaching, I’m a great believer in the world’s top rugby teams going to countries like the United States, Canada and Japan as to grow the game. I feel leading countries such as New Zealand and South Africa have a duty to foster the game in newly-emerging nations. I would also love to see two-month tours return. However, the reality is that the professional commercialism of rugby union makes it near impossible for teams to do that now, which is a sad development.
Sport24 asked: Sonny Bill Williams has returned to the All Blacks fold for the end-of-year tour. Some describe him as a mercenary and others a saviour. Which side of the debate do you sit on?
Laurie Mains: He’s a mercenary, there’s no question about that, but he’s a terribly gifted sportsman. While we might not all agree with the New Zealand rugby union letting him come and go as he pleases, I guess that’s the reality of professional sport. With the World Cup to defend next year, I couldn’t be critical of Steve Hansen’s decision to bring Williams back. Hansen has done a great job. Part of his success has been about getting the right people around him to complement his skills.
Sport24 asked: You were once described as a “traditional-style fullback with defence rather than enterprising running the priority.” Outline the fundamentals of effective fullback play.
Laurie Mains: I wasn’t the fastest fullback that ever played the game by a long shot, but timing and positioning allowed me to create opportunities for my teammates. I was fortunate in that I played under a coach who insisted that I create overlaps for the wings. In my book, the roles of wings and fullbacks are pretty much the same, and I admire the way the back three operates in teams today. Willie le Roux is nippy, and he’s certainly a very good player, but it’s a pity he’s not a few inches taller and a couple stone heavier, as I believe he would then be even more difficult to gather in.
Sport24 asked: Western Province host the Lions in the Currie Cup final. What’s your call?
Laurie Mains: Go the Lions! I wish them well for two reasons. Firstly, it’s my old province that I enjoyed success with, and secondly Johan Ackermann is a man whom I hold great respect for. I saw quite a bit of him when he was on tour with the Lions during Super Rugby and I believe he has a very bright coaching future… I knew heaps about the Currie Cup even before I headed over to coach in the country. The historic competition remains the heart and soul of provincial rugby in South Africa.
Hennie le Roux
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